Monday, January 30, 2006

Buckets of Bees

brood from Wilde colonyPlease, do not make fun of me. I know we were just at DEFCON 1. We may still be at DEFCON...perhaps a different number, or a mixture of several. Maybe I should use that crazy national security rainbow scale. But please, no mocking. Not where I can hear.

You see, the colonies of honeybees that seemed to be miserably afflicted and likely to be dwindling away to nothing are actually jam-packed-full of a humongous number of bees. Enough, in fact, that MaryEllen is telling me to check for swarm cells in January and I have to get right back out there to do it. Maybe I had a lot of mites because there were a lot of bees. Maybe there is still a killer crowd of mites in there capable of taking my masterful girls out.

They are getting a little crowded in there. The picture actually shows that Queen Elizabeth has laid eggs in every cell avvailable to her, and her babies are all mixed up with pollen and bee bread and maybe even propolis storage. Those Carniolan bees seem to love that propolis.

You can take a tour of the Wilde colony, and see how the sense of the situation changed as the frames from deeper and deeper inside the colony came to light.

I also have pictures from Twain, which seemed its usual healthy active self. It got late, though, and I got tired, so I decided to hold off the true physical until another day.

Judging from the swarm danger, however, that day is gonna be pretty darned soon. Geez, if it's not one thing, it's another. Now I have to go face my husband, who was rebuked for his assurances that all would be well. I think perhaps I will grab a glass of wine first...

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Good, the Bad, and the Oxalic

oxalic acidIf the bees are good, and the mites are bad, it's safe to assume that the treatment decision I just made may be a bit ugly. But pretty is off the table.

In a move that seems at the same moral level as shoplifting or kissing in church, I have (ahem) changed my mind and decided to try fumigating my diseased bees with oxalic acid. The deal seems to have been sealed when I found a web page that advocated getting more of the stuff in your diet (Editor's note: don't), another selling it as a deck cleaning product that would not hurt the asphalt on roofs, and (finally) my neighborhood hardware store sells the stuff in a definite non-hazmat manner. I wanted to try the argument that oxalic acid is also a naturally occuring substance, but so is arsenic.

Basically, my girls are dying up there, and this stuff seems like it is relatively harmless, except perhaps to me and the mites. The treatments are short and effective, and nothing else gives me much hope at all.

I built two evaporator tools (one will be given to MaryEllen), and you can see better instructions and pictures than I can offer on Bwrangler's page at But I am now the proud owner, for the first time, of a blow torch!

As of this precise moment, I have tried to use the evaporators twice, and failed to successfully melt the oxalic acid powder, because wiser souls advised not to "boil" the substance, and I am no torch jock. The plus side of this is that the Carniolans of the Wilde colony poured onto the the entrance board when I placed the evaporator at around 11 AM, reassuring me of their continued liveliness and giving me the most unlikely of trophies: a January bee sting. I was actually in a "You go girls!" place with that.

I tried to fumigate the Italian bees in the Twain colony at 2:00 PM, but I was too much of a torch wuss. When I checked the evaporator after it cooled, almost all the oxalic was still in there. The Carnies were flying like crazy this afternoon, so I am going to wait until later to try them again. says the temperature will drop around 5 today, sending the Wilde girls home soon. So this evening, it will be another episode of "A Woman And Her Torch," playing for the third time today live on my roof.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Mites are Back

If they ever left.

Yesterday completed three days of sticky board exposure, so it was time to take a Varroa mite count. For Twain, it seems 15 mites a day are dropping, high if no new bees are being reared, kinda middling if they are. Wilde is sorely afflicted: it dropped somewhere from 30-43 mites a day (I counted everything that looked like a mite, and could have overcounted a little).

It's not good if you post your mite count to a beekeeping bulletin board, and one of the experts answers, "Yikes!'

Both colonies need to be treated, but it is midwinter, and you are not supposed to mess with bees in midwinter. The following options are open:
  1. Try to sprinkle powdered sugar all over the bees. Pros: only non-toxic approach still open to me, no potential damage to the roof. Cons: unlikely to be able to completely coat the bees and eradicate mites, will kill at least some of the brood in open cells;

  2. Expose colonies to oxalic acid vapor. Pros: really quick, really effective. Cons: an extremely toxic substance (for people, not bees), not sure whether this use is legal, could damage roof (need to research latter);

  3. Place CheckMite strips. Pros: won't kill bees, won't disrupt brood rearing, effective if mites are not resistant, won't hurt roof. Cons: Another toxic organophosphate, will take a few days to get here, mites might be resistant.

I already ordered some CheckMite strips, but they will probably not arrive until Monday of next week. I am planning to take some powdered sugar and a flour sifter up to the roof tomorrow, when the temperature is supposed to be above fatal and the wind should be gone, and powder what bees I can (anything to hold the line).

Master beekeeper Brenda Kiessling told me, in June, two things:
  • There's really nothing to be gained from babying a weak colony through the winter; and
  • This is a lesson that every beekeeper seems to need to learn for herself.

Expert advice is not always comforting.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Dangers of PMS

Yesterday, my husband said, "So now you know everything is going to be OK with the bees over the winter, right?" To which I answered, "Well..." and he responded, with a sigh, "Of course."

It's always something, eh? The current anxiety is "PMS," or "Parasitic Mite Syndrome," a disease caused by Varroa mites. The mites get into the cell where the honeybee is developing, pierce the larvae to suck its blood, and introduce viruses that cause deformation of wings and abdomens. I saw PMS bees when I fed the other day, and began to wonder whether there was a big problem brewing.

bee with parasitic mite syndromeThis (dead) honeybee has the classic signs of PMS, little shrivelled wing slivers that are very different from the tattered wings you might find on old bees. This honeybee never had a chance: without wings, she could never fly or forage, and she was probably cast out by her sisters as a result. Yesterday, I found a PMS bee very far from the hives, too far for her to creep. One of her sisters had picked her up, flown her off, and dropped her — hygienic behavior that is good for the hive but bad for the sentimental heart.

wing deformed by parasitic mite syndromeJust to belabor the point a bit, here is a picture of a wing taken at 60x magnification by my husband. Those two frozen stubs are wings that never were. The name of the order to which bees belong, Hymenoptera, refers to their two pairs of twinned, gauzy wings. This just seems like a particularly mean spirited flavor of destruction to me.

The most important thing to know now is whether I have a problem (if I do, how to handle it is a completely different mystery, since I thought I took action already). In any case, I asked for advice both from the bulletin boards and my local beekeeper club. Both groups said the same thing: get a mite count. These could be old bees left over from before you treated for varroa in the Fall, they could be newer bees emerging after an ineffective treatment: with beekeepers if you ask two folks you get 6 opinions (this is not a joke). The old bee scenario means "no problem," the new bee scenario means "condition red." If I have a high mite count, it means the latter.

So I have embarked on counting mites, you can see how I have started by looking at the "Making a Sticky Board" page in the links at the right. Your advice is very welcome, and any comments will be read right away.

Friday, January 20, 2006

When Friday is Sun Day

sun beeAccording to the National Weather Service, the coldest days of the year here are usually from January 9 to January 23. Today, it is a sunny 60 degrees F out there, and the girls are flying their hearts out (though bees don't have hearts...but they do have blood). It's the fourth warmest January on record, with no cold snap scheduled for the immediate future.

Now, for the beekeeper, warm weather has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, your bees are not freezing to death, and you have fewer of those "Poor Bees!" thoughts while hustling about outside. On the minus side, warm bees are more active bees, and they therefore eat more of their honey stores at a time when there is no nectar anywhere for them to collect.

So this means, tah-dah, I get to pay them a visit! In the winter, we feed the bees a heavier sugar syrup, one that is 2-1 sugar to water by weight, and we hope they eat it. Today I got to go up with the second dose of sugar in two weeks, and to be with my girls in the sun. Take a look at that picture and tell me that it's not at least a little like living with Tinkerbell.

Well, the hives were rocking and rolling with honeybee comings and goings, but the girls were very gentle. I did not smoke them, and should not have bothered wearing gloves (since I decided not to use smoke, it seemed smart to wear gloves. To heck with that!) I had a big soup pot with 10 pounds of sugar in 8ish cups of water, and that is what you see me pouring into the hive top feeder on Twain. Wilde once again got more than half, since I suspect that the Carnies are already raising brood.

A subject of more concern: there were bees with shrivelled wings creeping around the roof. Only a few, but this is evidence of Varroa mite damage. When the mites grab onto larvae in the honeycomb, they suck their blood. The stress and loss of nutrients causes the honeybee's wings to form poorly, and the bites can even introduce illnesses to the developing bee. I have posted a question on a beekeeping bulletin board about "How Much Is Too Much?" when spotting mite damage, and will let you know.

One last observation: I gave the hives each one cup of fake pollen during my last visit, and Wilde did not eat theirs, though Twain did. So Twain got some more, even though it's not really time for that (I am supposed to wait until February). We should start having ample local pollen soon, so maybe I should stop monkeying around. I just love to work with them, and to give them what I can.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Winter Bees and Quiet Blogs

view from stairsAs you probably know by now, the bees don't fly much in the winter: they huddle together in a cluster inside the hive, and make warmth by flexing their little bee muscles. Mostly, beekeepers take one of two courses of (non)action during this season. The first is to philosophically accept that they have already done what they can for the bees, and that nature holds the rest of the cards. The second is to hover around, and wonder what superfluous actions (wrapping hives, providing extra food stores, sweeping nearby puddles off the roof...) might help the bees' chances.

You get only one guess concerning which camp issued my membership card.

The bees are almost always on my mind. Anytime you head upstairs, you can look at the Twain colony through the skylight above. And every time (sigh), I look for bees on the wing, or hope for a bit of sunshine on the side of the hives. Mostly in December there was nothing but a pale grey sky.

But things have, counterintuitively, brightened up in January. We are in an unseasonable warm spate (temps bumping up against 60 degrees F) and yesterday the activity outside the hive entrances seemed greater than in September! Even better, it seemed that the Wilde colony's Carniolans were running the bigger party!

The Carniolans have clearly been more active at lower temperatures throughout this season, and I am kind of wondering whether I should switch my chief anxiety from "Are there enough of them to survive?" to "Are they starting to raise brood too soon?" Therefore, after a spectacular failure at making bee candy (see link at right) on my own, I turned 10 pounds of sugar into about 3 gallons of 2:1 sugar syrup and hauled it up to the roof today. It is also supposed to be warm and rainy tomorrow, so I figured it would give the girls something to do while they were incarcerated.

As an afterthought, I grabbed a baggy of fake pollen (yes, you can buy fake pollen) and brought some of that up to the roof, too. If they are raising brood, they might like some protein. It also might be a bad idea, since giving them protein might cause them to start brood, but I am willing to take the chance.

When I popped the top on the Carniolans, they were already rocking and rolling inside. There were a couple of half hearted attempts by guard bees to demonstrate displeasure, but that all stopped when I poured the syrup. Many hundreds of bees stuck out their tongues and said "Yum!" I gave more than half of the syrup to the Wilde girls, because they had lower honey stores to start with. In checking a few days ago, they had 6 full frames in the top medium super still to go, and probably some more below, but I am not taking chances.

The Italian bees in Twain were their usual warmth-loving selves: not really into making an active response to me popping the lid. They got maybe a gallon, which those bees present took to right away. A few days ago, they had 8 full deep frames of honey above the cluster, so they are less likely to starve. I will be back in a few days to see how they are taking things, nonetheless.

For the first time, it really feels like they are going to make it. It might be a good idea not to get too excited about this, but it does my heart good: that and having bees buzzing around me again after such a long time.